Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Did All Greeks Deny Human Equality? A response to Avalos' claim that I dissed the ancients.

In his latest sallies in our on-going dispute over slavery, Hector Avalos seems to have mellowed a bit, if I'm not deluding myself. Perhaps he recognizes now that he is not going to win this debate purely on the beauty of fine footnotes. Or perhaps he is satisfied with having savaged me on a popular web site, where any response (if posted) is likely to be lost in the thicket of miscellaneous post-script.

It is a bit rich, though, of Avalos to describe my first response as a "personal attack." It was in part a defense against Avalos' personal attacks, as anyone who reads them will, I think, see was necessary.

True, I also criticized Avalos. I think my critique was judicious: Avalos is an intelligent, accomplished scholar and talented teacher. He is also grossly unfair towards Christianity and those who believe it. He is often remarkably sloppy in how he represents other scholars and historical facts. His arguments are undermined by logic that strikes me as atrocious.

The main purpose of that article, though, was neither to defend myself, nor dismiss Dr. Avalos, but to put his attacks on me, other Christian scholars, and the Christian record, in proper contexts. This needed to be done, because Avalos left way too much context out: our history, the nature of the books I was responding to, the nature of The Christian Delusion, indeed the nature of man and human exploitation.

Dr. Avalos owed it to me, but even more to his readers, to put his arguments into their proper contexts -- an even more important aspect of good scholarship, perhaps, than accurately listing publishing dates of books cites.

That was my main point. In his responses, however, Avalos not only neglects it, but is again grossly negligent with context.

I'll respond to his first post here (reproduced in the previous blog, also on the "Debunking Christianity" website) then to his other posts later.

(1) First, it is untrue that I have "no personal knowledge whatsoever" about the Craig-Avalos debate, and just "repeat material found on the internet."

In fact, I watched the thing. I cited Craig and Gonzalez on it, in part because I found their analysis on the money.

Nor am I sure it is fair to describe comments by the principals in Avalos' prior disputes merely as "material found on the internet." This description is literally true -- I found Gonzalez' comments in my "In-Box" after sending him an e-mail asking about his experiences with Avalos, for instance -- but rather misleading.

(2) Why should I care if Dr. Craig mistakenly described Dr. Avalos' position at Iowa State University? For the record, having watched a few of Craig's debates, it seems to me he usually goes out of his way in them to properly credit debate partners for their accomplishments. (Unlike, say, Bart Ehrman, who seemed to think he could win his debate by disparaging Craig's academic associations.) But that has little to do with our debate, or even with Craig's evaluation of Dr. Avalos' methods.

(3) Avalos admits he mistakenly added the word "the" to a quotation from me about how common it was in the ancient world to dismiss the humanity of other people. He avers that his error did not much change the meaning of my original comment, however, and that the original was still misleading somehow.

Here again, context makes a big difference. Here are the three paragraphs to the citation in question (which I'll put in bold):

"Jesus Frees Slaves
"The outlawing of the slave trade was a huge milestone in history. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens all pin their criticism of the Bible on its failure to condemn this institution. For Harris, this is inexplicable. Isn't it obvious that a slave is a human being who suffers and enjoys like all of us? Every reasonable person understands that treating people 'like farm equipment' is 'patently evil.' Harris argues, 'It is remarkably easy for a person to arrive at this epiphany.' Yet it had to be spread 'at the point of a bayonet' in the pious American South.

"Only a historically sheltered child of the West and the product of a politically correct public school system could achieve such breathtaking and uncritical naivite.

"Slavery was obviously not wrong to Aristotle. The equality of humanity was denied by by Greeks, Gnostics, Indians (Asian and American), Africans, Chinese, and countless smaller tribes . . . " (The Truth Behind the New Atheism, 144)

I am, clearly, arguing that the teachings of Jesus led to the liberation of slaves. I am also arguing against Harris' naive and anachronistic view that since slaves are obviously human, it is "remarkably easy" for civilizations to arrive at the "epiphany" that slavery is "patently evil."

I return to both points again in the next paragraph, on page 145, which begins, "No great civilization arrived at the 'epiphany' Harris thinks so obvious until the rise of Christian Europe."

To support this point, that civilizations do not spontanteously recognize the evil of slavery, it is not necessary that I show that no one other than Christians ever decried it. Indeed, in that following paragraph, I point out that "a few voices" in India were raised against caste, but "the system shook them off." Analogously, as evidence warrants, I have no problem granting that such voices might perhaps have also been heard against slavery -- few and far between though they seem to have been.

All I need to support my argument is to show is that Harris' 21st Century Bay Area perspective was not the norm in the pre-modern world. Does Avalos really want to ally himself with Harris on this point? I offer examples from Greece, Islam, India, and the European Enlightenment to show that slavery and / or human inequality were often taken for granted.

The sentence Avalos objects to claims that "the equality of humanity" was denied by "Greeks, Gnostics, Indians," etc. The function of this sentence is not to show that no non-Christian ever spoke out against inequality -- I admit in the next paragraph that some Indians (at least) did. Its function, rather, is to show that what Harris describes as "remarkably easy" -- our modern dislike of unpaid exploitation -- in fact came with great difficulty, and a lot of leafing of Scripture.

That the sentence should be read as referring to individuals should be clear from sentences immediately before and after it, in which I give examples of influential people who denied what Harris saw as self-evident: Aristotle, Hume, Voltaire, Ernst Haeckel.

True, I might have made THAT sentence more clear by adding the word "many:" "The equality of humanity was denied by MANY Greeks . . . " My books are not sacred scripture, and one wants to keep even determined opponents from misunderstanding what one writes, if at all possible. But in context -- again -- it is hard to read this page as meaning ALL Greeks, Gnostics, Indians, etc, denied the equality of humanity -- which I neither believe to be the case, nor wish others to believe.

Avalos' other remarks are mostly focused on the meat of the issue, and it should be possible to answer them in a single, later post.

(Pirates of Caribbean photo copyright Disney 2003)


B.R. said...

Sorry, but Jesus did not end slavery. Later generations of his followers with a more developed sense of ethics and morality than their more orthodox brethren did it. Slavery is defended in the bible, and in the OT, beating your slaves to death is permissible, as is selling your daughter to another man to be his wife. And no where does Jesus say that slavery is wrong; pro-slavery Christians in Christian Europe frequently used scripture to defend slavery as a biblical practice, as it undeniably is. I'm sorry, but your entire argument that Christianity abolished slavery is pure nonsense. If anything, it was the natural, humanistic impulse to end the barbaric enslavement of others.

David B Marshall said...

BR: You bring up four issues, really: (1) Does the Bible clearly condemn slavery? (2) Does it take any clear position on slavery? (3) The question having been raised, does abolition make better sense in light of biblical teaching, or the status quo of slavery? (4) Did Christians, apparently inspired by the teachings and life of Jesus and the New Testament, lead the fight against slavery?

My post was about (4). For evidence in support of (4), see the timeline for anti-slave action in my previous post, also the long chapter on slavery in Rodney Stark's For the Glory of God.

If you want to know what I think about the other three questions, I'd say (1) no; (2) no; and (3) heck, yeah.

Slavery was not "defended" in the Bible -- no one was attacking it. To put it in those terms is anachronistic, assuming a way of thinking that, in fact, Christianity created.

B.R. said...

I did not say that Christians did not lead the fight against slavery; I'd have to be utterly ignorant of that episode to say that. What I am saying is that Christianity did not end slavery any more than it created the atomic bomb. One thing you forgot to mention is that is that the men on the other side of the divide, the ones trying to preserve slavery, were also Christians inspired by the NT and Jesus; and they could actually use scripture to defend slavery, something their liberal brethren could not.
Also, I disagree with your answers to (2) and (3). The OT explicitly condones slavery as a normal, acceptable practice, and Paul condones slavery as well. While the bible does not say whether or not slavery is morally good, clearly God thought it was or he would not have tolerated it; it's a bit odd for a "perfect" god who damns unbelievers because he can't stand sin to allow a "sinful" practice because "that's the way society was back then".

David B Marshall said...

BR: Most who favored slavery were NOT Christians. Slavery was pretty universal, accepted in cultures around the world. Even in the abstract, it's unlikely that "Jesus and the NT" inspired Christians to defend slavery, while something else inspired non-Christians around the world to accept it.

Read the NT, and it's obvious there's little to inspire slavery in the teachings of Jesus or his first followers. Slavery was an accepted institution, which Christians slowly began to challenge. Paul told slaves to try to win freedom, if they could. But since opposition to slavery on moral grounds was a Christian innovation, grounded on but not arising directly from NT teachings, it is anachronistic to talk of "condoning" slavery, as if an iternate evangelist, himself held captive a lot of the time, had any say in how the Roman Empire was run.

What inspired people to keep slaves? Money. Keeping slaves was profitable.

Christian civilization eventually discontinued this institution, often at a high price, around the world. Stark does a good job of explaining how that happened, and the role theological reflection in the process. Both sides quoted "proof texts," but it's pretty obvious the winning side was arguing more in the spirit, and with the motivation, of Jesus and his first followers.

B.R. said...

I'm didn't say that most who favored slavery were Christians, I was obviously referring to the fight against slavery in the 18th and 19th century. Your entire comment is nothing more than you knocking down a straw-man, and a pretty irrelevant straw-man at that. Fact; while Christians led the fight to end slavery, starting around the 1700s if I remember correctly, those who in favor of preserving slavery were themselves Christians. Not until your last three sentences do you actually address this. I can give dozens of verses from the OT that explicitly condone slavery as a normal practice, but the question is, can you give me the so-called "proof text" that abolitionists were using, according to you?

I'll be awaiting your answer.


Why do you have a still from Pirates of The Caribbean? What does that have to do with the subject?